At the trial that ended with Patricia Jennings’ death sentence, five witnesses testified about blood that spattered onto the ceiling and wall during the crime. When Jennings took the stand, the prosecutor demanded that she explain how the blood got there — and implied that she was lying when she could not. During the trial’s sentencing phase, the prosecutor theorized that the blood on the ceiling flew from the victim’s mouth while Jennings hit or stomped him. The truth was — there never was any blood on the ceiling or wall.
Quick Facts: Patricia Jennings
- Race: White
- County: Wilson County
- Date of Crime: September 19, 1989
- Victim: William Henry Jennings, Age 80
- Conviction Date: November 5, 1990
- Execution Date: Jennings was resentenced to life in prison without parole in June 2013
- Errors: SBI agents presented falsified evidence to persuade jurors that the crime was especially brutal and merited a death sentence.
The State Bureau of Investigation agents who conducted the blood analysis testified falsely to the jury. It took 20 years for that fact to emerge.
Patricia Jennings was sentenced to death in 1990 for killing her husband, William Henry Jennings, in a Wilson hotel room. Without the falsified blood evidence, Jennings likely would not have received a death sentence for the killing.
The law recognizes that not every murder merits execution. For that reason, the crimes of defendants who receive death sentences must have aggravating circumstances. The blood on the ceiling and wall was used to prove that Jennings’ crime was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel,” an aggravating circumstance that made her eligible for the death penalty.
In 2010 and 2011, audits of the SBI’s blood analysis division found that the SBI routinely hid or manipulated evidence to help secure convictions. Jennings was one of 10 death-sentenced defendants identified in the audits as having been victims of this practice. Three had already been executed by the time the audits were released.
The SBI analyst who testified at Jennings’ trial, Brenda Bissette, told the jury that her initial analysis indicated there was blood on the ceiling and wall of the hotel room. She went on to testify that “there was an insufficient quantity for further analysis.” She repeated this assertion on cross-examination.
In truth, the analyst had done two other confirmatory tests — and both indicated that the substance found on the ceiling and wall was not blood. These tests are necessary because the initial test is prone to false positives, which can be caused by rust, certain metals and many vegetables, including beets and potatoes.
Bissette omitted these negative results both in her report and in her testimony. She later said it was the policy of the SBI at the time to report only positive results on presumptive tests for blood, and to omit negative results on confirmatory tests. “That was the way we did it at the time,” Bissette said in a 2013 deposition.
Bissette admitted during the deposition that she had carried her notes to trial, and that her testimony was directly contrary to her notes.
The falsified evidence originated with Bissette, but it was repeated again and again during Jennings’ trial:
- Four other law enforcement officers and experts, including another SBI analyst, also testified about the blood on the ceiling and wall.
- Samples of the wallpaper and photographs and diagrams of the supposed blood spatter were shown to the jury.
- When Jennings took the stand, the prosecutor used her failure to explain the blood on the ceiling and wall to raise doubts about her truthfulness.
- When the jury was weighing whether to sentence Jennings to death, the prosecutor developed inflammatory theories based on the false evidence.
“Remember the blood on the ceiling?” the prosecutor asked the jury during the trial’s sentencing phase. “Was he throwing his arms in defense and the blood shot up from the defensive wounds on the back of his hands? Or did she hit him so hard or stomp him so hard that it flew up there from his mouth?”
Earlier in the trial, the prosecutor said to the jury: “What were they doing in that room? Were they slaughtering chickens…? There was blood everywhere in that room.”
During the depositions in Jennings’ case, her lawyers learned that other blood evidence in her case had also been falsified. SBI analysts concealed negative tests for the presence of blood on hotel pillows and the bathroom wall, limiting their testimony to only positive results. They also failed to properly document tests on other supposed blood spots. In those depositions, a second analyst, Mike Budzynski, admitted that his testimony at Jennings’ trial contradicted his notes and report.
Uncovering this evidence was not easy. The state ignored Jennings’ appeal for 15 years, then asked a judge to dismiss it while insisting that SBI agents did nothing wrong.
Jennings was finally removed from death row in 2013, after a judge agreed that she had been unfairly tried. She was resentenced to life in prison without parole, but only after her lawyers presented evidence of errors by her trial and appeal lawyers, as well as the falsified blood analysis. After 23 years under the threat of execution, the 70-year-old Jennings was moved into the general prison population.
Five other defendants whose cases were tainted by false blood evidence remain on death row.